The Conservative Party will today rule out joint authority for Northern Ireland – a hugely significant move which will delight unionists.
The party, which is launching its manifesto for Northern Ireland this morning, will also set out a firmly pro-Union stance, stating that a Theresa May-led government will always argue that Northern Ireland is better off within the Union.
The News Letter understands that the manifesto includes an unambiguous commitment to rule out the possibility of the British and Irish governments jointly running Northern Ireland.
The commitment is in line with what Government minister Lord Dunlop told the House of Lords in January when he said that “any form of joint authority” – which would involve London and Dublin jointly running Northern Ireland – would not be compatible with the consent principle in the Good Friday Agreement.
However, putting such a commitment in writing in the party’s manifesto gives it added weight – and makes it more difficult to set aside.
The spectre of joint authority was used by the late Ian Paisley to justify his decision to enter power-sharing with Sinn Fein in 2007. He claimed that if he had not done so then the Government would have imposed such an arrangement.
The then Labour Government, at that point keen to get the DUP to enter power-sharing, did little to rebut Dr Paisley’s claims.
But now, with such a prospect being viewed tantalisingly by some within Sinn Fein who are giving the impression that they are prepared to sacrifice Stormont if the DUP does not make major concessions, the Government is seemingly preparing a pressure point on republicans.
The manifesto pledge does not clarify exactly what form government in Northern Ireland is likely to take if devolution cannot be restored by July – at which point budgetary pressures are thought to make some form of ministerial oversight inevitable if the local parties refuse to form a government.
The main Conservative Party manifesto was launched a fortnight ago but further manifestos are being launched in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
When asked yesterday if a future Conservative government would be bound by pledges in the Northern Ireland manifesto even if (as expected) no Tory MPs are elected in the Province, a Conservative spokesman said: “Absolutely. This is the Conservative Party manifesto for Northern Ireland. Should it win the General Election, this is the programme that a Conservative government would follow.”
It is understood that the manifesto will say that the Conservatives will not countenance any constitutional arrangements which would be in any way incompatible with the consent principle – that is, the principle that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to decided if they want to change the Province’s constitutional position.
One such arrangement ruled out explicitly is joint authority between the UK and the Republic.
The manifesto will also restate the party’s stance that it will never be neutral on the Union and that it firmly believes that Northern Ireland’s future is best served by remaining as part of the UK.
In his book The Fall of the House of Paisley, the journalist David Gordon questioned whether there ever was a plan for full-scale joint London-Dublin rule if Stormont had not returned.
He quoted a source close to the then Secretary of State Peter Hain saying that there would have been “lots of meetings” with a north-south theme, but this would have been “more window-dressing than legal or structural”.
However, it has been repeatedly cited by senior DUP figures as a key reason as to why they agreed to share power with Sinn Fein after years of saying that they would never do so.
In 2007, Dr Paisley told BBC journalist Stephen Nolan that the Government had told him “if we didn’t do this, then it was going to be curtains for our country...it was going to be a ‘Plan b’””.
And – six year before she would become DUP leader – in 2010 Arlene Foster said: “The only strategy the TUV has is Direct Rule or joint-authority as the TUV used to call it. Direct Rule never sided with unionists and was the back-door delivery mechanism for republicans. Devolution, though far from perfect, is immeasurably better than having decisions foisted on us.”
After the collapse of the Executive in January, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that if devolution could not be restored then “joint authority between the Irish and British Governments is the only acceptable position for the nationalist community”.